Still all good: Myka 9 talks the glory days of the Good Life and '1969'
Legitimate scenes -- sincere and organic movements, not media-manufactured myopias -- are an unfortunate rarity. Maybe that’s why hip-hop heads are still celebrating the Good Life, that fertile font of creativity that bloomed in the late 1980s and early '90s, at the titular -- and since-shuttered -- South Los Angeles health food restaurant. Every Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m., an eclectic collection of avant-garde artists performed before hanging-from-the-rafters crowds, providing a viable alternative to the gangs and guns archetype that defined the region's rap in the aftermath of N.W.A.
Underground hip-hop has long been cluttered with critiques and low on cures, but the emcees that clustered in Leimert Park were forced to forge their own lanes -- with nary a four-letter epithet allowed, part of Good Life founder B. Hall’s intention to create the atmosphere of a serious arts workshop. Indeed, the notoriously discerning crowds frequently admonished sub-par performers to “please, pass the mic.” Most infamously, a young Fat Joe was the recipient of the audience’s ire, when he violated the “no profanity” rule and was mercilessly booed out onto Crenshaw Boulevard.
With a focus on creativity, experimentation and a steady reverence for the art form’s roots, the list of Good Life’s alumni reads like a litany of left-coast '90s alternative hip-hop: major label acts Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas (then known as Atban Klann); subterranean staples such as Abstract Rude, Omid, Rifleman, Volume 10, Busdriver and Medusa; and one-hit wonders Ahmad and Skee-Lo, cutting their teeth at the fabled spot. Even veterans like the Watts Prophets and their East Coast incarnation, the Last Poets, once conducted a legendary jam session.
But perhaps the most artistically vital of the pack was the Freestyle Fellowship crew, consisting of Aceyalone, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter, and Myka 9 (under his old moniker Myka Nyne). With a smoky jazz tint, polysyllabic rapid-fire rhymes and salient Afrocentric consciousness, the Fellowship disregarded any preconceived notions about hip-hop’s boundaries. Stylistic kin and predecessors to the Pharcyde (also frequent visitors to the Good Life), Digable Planets and even Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the group released two widely acknowledged classics in 1991’s “To Whom It May Concern” and 1993’s “Innercity Griots.”
Lamentably, the incarceration of Self Jupiter in 1993 caused the crew to take an unplanned hiatus until 1998’s “Shockadoom,” a record that didn’t see the light of day until 2002. Both Aceyalone and Myka 9, the group’s two most celebrated members, have kept busy in the ensuing decade and a half since the Good Life’s zenith, releasing a spate of solo records; helping to run Good Life-outgrowth Project Blowed; and teaming up with Abstract Rude to form super-group, Haiku D’ Etat.
Most recently, Myka 9 released “1969” on indie label Fake Four Inc. A concept album re-envisioning his birth year, “1969” is a nostalgia-heavy ode to the days of classic cars, cheap drugs and free love, backed by supernal bronze blasts of vintage Motown soul.
Consider this week unofficial Good Life week, with Amoeba Music presenting a screening of the Ava Verney-directed documentary “This Is the Life” tonight, and a Good Life reunion concert Tuesday at the House of Blues, featuring performances from nearly every artist associated with the legendary open mic night.
What was it about the year 1969 that compelled you to write a concept album about it?
“1969” came together based on the vibrations of the sounds that were submitted to me by [Canadian producer] Factor. Once we ran down a few lines, I started to wonder what it would be like to do a hip-hop album in that era, backed by a live band. I started to think about the way that the music sounded in the late '60s and early '70s. It was also the year that I was born. I started to think about what it would be like if I rhymed like this, back then.
Did you do any research? Are you fairly well-versed in '60s history?
The research that I did was primarily for the title track, and also asking friends and elders what they thought at the time, and what they were teaching back then.
Do you listen to a lot of music from that period?
Absolutely, a lot of the David Axelrod stuff, the jazz from the period, Jimi Hendrix, and some of the old doo-wop and early disco.
You’ve continually tried to experiment artistically throughout your career, whereas a lot of veterans are content to stay in their own lane. What do you attribute this restlessness to?
From seeking originality and trying to always develop more of a dynamic range. I call it being open, in that it increases my range and appreciation and ability to participate in the music. I always want to learn and try out new music forms.
Were these things you learned at the Good Life?
Yes. The Good Life was a place to be open, and it was also a place to be supportive and creative. There was never any fighting or drinking, it was a vegetarian health food place, and every week there was this pressure to have a new song, a new vibe, a new performance. It was sort of like one-act theater, with how much importance they place on the monologue.
What do you think it was about the Good Life that allowed it to become such a vital incubator of talent?
The place was so small, and the crowd and the audience and the other artists waiting to perform were in such close contact; you were, in essence, performing under a hyper-critical microscope. You couldn’t have a flaw when the stage was that close, and you were constantly in the same spot as your peers.
Was there anyone in particular who you were in friendly competition with?
My term for that would be an entity: They wouldn’t necessarily beat me, I wouldn’t necessarily beat them. We’d be differing entities, and early on, it was Acelayone, Abstract Rude, Chali 2na, Medusa. Through the years, Rifleman Ellay Khule, Volume 10, Ganjah K, J Smoov were very stylistic and had a harder approach. There were also a lot of people who would come in when they were in town: Fat Joe, Supernatural, Da Lench Mob, Pharrell all had run-ins with emcees from the Good Life.
Was it something that you knew was special while it was occurring, or was it only in hindsight when everyone realized how unique the Good Life scene was?
Well, Freestyle Fellowship was doing our thing well before the Good Life, and when we heard about what they were doing, we knew that it was another place to do our thing. Then crowds of people started coming in when they heard about the format, and it grew from there. It was always fun how they ran the show, with the "please, pass the mic,” format.
When did you guys discover the place?
Aceyalone told me about it. They’d just started hosting open-mics up there and rhyming and bringing in beats about consciousness. I said I was with it, and I went the third week. Acey had already been there in Week 2. Either way, there was practically no one there. But then we started promoting it, calling friends, passing out fliers, and then the emcees started coming through, and the rest was history. They were really providing a profound service.
-- Jeff Weiss
The Good Life at House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd. West Hollywood. (323) 848-5100. 8 p.m. Tuesday. $9.50
Photo: Todd Non Stop Photography